Customer service sure does suck sometimes, doesn’t it?

By Christina Beavis

That’s on both ends of the equation. We’ve all grappled with unhelpful customer service reps, but only as a business owner can you understand the unique agony of admitting you screwed up.

It’s painful, it’s humbling, and most of all, it’s necessary. During a PR nightmare, your first instinct might be to hide and wait for tomorrow’s outrage to attract the spotlight of the social media mob. It feels safer in the moment, but your business will hurt in the long-run. Consider this:

Edelman’s 2018 Trust Barometer indicates institutional trust is at an all-time low. In parallel, consumers (especially millennials) are increasingly drawn to brands that project authenticity, a quality encompassing honesty, transparency and accountability. Your values distinguish you from competitors, making it all the more crucial to take ownership of mistakes.

The calm, measured strength of authenticity isn’t easy to access when you’re getting knocked down by a firehose of Internet rage. Here are a couple practical tips to help you maintain character the next time your business sucks:

Offer a genuine apology acknowledging your responsibility. In 2014, Home Depot experienced a cybersecurity breach that compromised 56 million credit card numbers. Then-CEO Frank Blake was at the tailend of a sterling executive tenure, and few would have faulted him for passing the crisis along to his successor to preserve his reputation. Instead, he took full responsibility, acknowledging his part in the failure and offering customers reimbursement for fraudulent charges and free credit monitoring. The result? Home Depot share prices took a brief hit, then quickly bounced back. (Target experienced a similar data breach earlier that year and scrambled to fix the problem without first disclosing the breach to its customers. Its stock tumbled down over a period of several months.)

Your legal team’s counsel may run to the contrary, but your customer’s BS meter is on high alert. Using shifty corporate jargon signals you’re more invested in avoiding liability than in your brand’s integrity. Ultimately, saying “I’m sorry, I understand why you’re upset” creates space for empathetic connection; “I’m sorry you’re upset” belittles the recipient’s feelings.

Rethink your customer service platforms. Social media has fantastic utility as a direct conversational channel, but its immediacy is a double-edged sword. Emotions spike, facts get distorted and the narrative spins out of control. Using a separate brand-controlled domain has a multitude of benefits:

  • Empower your team. Directing conversations towards a controlled space minimizes negative publicity and allows you to move away from reactionary damage control. This gives your team breathing room to focus on solving the actual problem, not putting out fires and playing PR rep.
  • Have meaningful conversations. 280 characters is just enough space to say “Sorry, we’re working on it!” The customer gets put on hold with no sense of how and when their issue is being resolved. Social is a “waiting room” where problems get logged; with your own site, you can build an “operating room” centered around solutions. Design the UX and craft content with an emphasis on displaying your proactivity. You’ll reinforce the message that you care, generate customer goodwill and create more of an opportunity for genuine connection. Customer engagement community platform,, for example, does just that, by connecting companies with their customers to foster honest and straightforward conversations through more open interactions.
  • Collect data. On social media, the cascade of trolls, bots and general abuse makes it difficult to parse out the most relevant threads of the conversation. A website provides robust analytical tools to clarify recurring issues and determine the need for longer-lasting solutions.

Reflect on the little details and the big picture — then take action. Getting in the nitty gritty will help you fix the immediate problem, but take a step back to analyze wide-ranging implications for your business and whether you need to take broader strategic action. For example, after a racially charged incident at a Philadelphia Starbucks, Starbucks shut down stores nationwide for employees to receive racial bias training. Although it lost millions in revenue, the critical priority was maintaining the ethos of the Starbucks brand — a “third space” where all are welcome.

Here are some guiding action steps:

  • Dissect your communications. Emails, tweets, live chats, press releases — look at how your brand represented itself to customers, what they responded well to, and cull best practices from there.
  • Show customers you’re invested in rebuilding trust. You might have to make sacrifices to your ego or to your bottom line, but it’ll be worthwhile if your customers feel valued. Brainstorm how to go the extra mile and implement with generosity.
  • Ask yourself where you failed. Understanding how the issue originated will give you a better baseline for problem-solving procedures. It could be as simple as rooting out an administrative or operational inefficiency, or it might entail a serious revamp of training procedures.

This step is absolutely crucial. Your business sucking is unavoidable, but it doesn’t have to keep sucking. Lack of self-reflection diminishes the educational value of an experience in which you  failed to serve your customer. Taking an afternoon to process the experience will save you time in the long-run and serves as an opportunity to revisit core values and become more aligned with your audience. Your authenticity and commitment will shine through, you’ll build a brand that you’re proud of, and you’ll earn lifelong customers as a result.

Christina Beavis, COO of Vox Populi Registry.

Customer service stock photo by Phoenixns/Shutterstock